Our Voice: Unified approach still best for new public facilities in the Tri-Cities

November 26, 2013 

Tri-City public facilities districts are left wondering what path to take after the failure of two sales tax measures in recent months.

If the measures had passed, we'd be talking about the construction of an aquatics center and an expanded convention center.

Instead, the PFDs are left with big challenges and no clear plans for the future.

The Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District board met recently to try to figure out what to do after voters killed its proposal for an aquatics center.

It was the first measure run by the new regional PFD and a step toward a more unified approach to a grand project by the three biggest cities. We probably only need one aquatics center or performing arts center in the community. But, like the Toyota Center and the Three Rivers Convention Center, the new facilities would serve the community as a whole. Sharing the financial burden across the cities makes sense.

But the voters didn't think so. Or maybe it just wasn't the right project. Or the right time.

Board members cite tax fatigue as a reason for the aquatics center failure. But the measure passed in Pasco, a city traditionally tough on tax increases. It failed in Kennewick and Richland.

The board also said uncertain financial times was a significant factor in the failure. It's hard to see much evidence of that, with the construction boom in the Tri-Cities and an average household income of $67,635.

Sure, there are upcoming layoffs at Hanford. But it seems there are always layoffs at Hanford. One door closes and another one opens for many of the folks affected, shifting to another area of the cleanup project or taking a retirement option. And Hanford is not the only game in town.

Others say the voters didn't like the idea of a perpetual tax with no specified sunset.

We're left to wonder if the voters were not clear on a sales tax measure. That tax would have been a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase in the three cities. That's much different than a property tax. The burden of a sales tax would be borne by all those making purchases in the Tri-Cities, not just the landowners. That means visitors shopping here would help pay the freight.

The Tri-Cities is a regional shopping destination. People from more rural areas come here to stock up on supplies. Or to shop at Columbia Center mall for Christmas gifts and back-to-school clothing. We're as good as it gets for folks living an hour or two or three out of town. It's true that Oregonians don't have to pay sales tax here. But we don't have to pay it there, either.

The Kennewick Public Facilities District also failed to convince the city's voters that an expanded convention center was worth a few extra bucks. If a person were to spend $50,000 in taxable purchases in Kennewick in a year, they'd end up paying $50 toward the convention center. We're guessing most folks don't spend nearly that much in Kennewick each year. Don't forget purchases of things like groceries, prescriptions and even newspapers are exempt from sales tax.

The Kennewick PFD may end up trying again on its own or pitching the convention center expansion to the regional group for a communitywide vote.

Pasco is considering whether to survey residents about a variety of topics, including whether that city should continue pursuing plans for a major aquatics center, a scaled-down version, or forget the matter altogether.

That brings us back to a fractured state once again, where one city could end up bearing the burden for all, or spending money on something smaller and city-specific. Or abandon the idea entirely.

We still believe a unified approach is the best. In the end, that should provide better and more facilities at a shared cost. But right now, we're left with uncertainty all around and several worthy projects in limbo.

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